The Lazarus Plant

According to the New York Times, a team of Russian scientists has revived an ancient plant species from seeds that had been preserved in the Siberian permafrost for tens of thousands of years.  Apparently, they succeeded in extracting a tissue-culture and growing it in vitro in a laboratory. Though the plant species still exists, the older specimen may yield some fascinating insights into evolution and speciation.

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The age of the seeds is estimated to be between 30,000 to 32,000 years old, making this the oldest organism ever to be “resurrected.” The team recovered them from burrows located very deep beneath the Siberian tundra, some of which contained as many as 600,000 seeds. They were gathered and stored by an ancient species of ground squirrel whose prolific collecting may yet yield more well-preserved samples of other ancient plants.

As of this post, the developments are still ongoing. It remains to be seen if this plant can successfully propagate, or if it will be viable for long. If anyone wants more detailed and expert information on the significance of this finding, I direct you to a great post in Why Evolution Is Trufrom biologist Jerry Coyne.

You can also read one of my earlier posts on yet another plant that was resurrected in a similar way. Though nowhere near as ancient, it was actually extinct until very recently.

Signs of Aging Stopped in Mice

Scientists in the Mayo Clinic have managed to reduce or even completely eliminate the pathology of aging, including wrinkles, cataracts, and muscle atrophy. From the BBC article:

Scientists at the Mayo Clinic, in the US, devised a way to kill all senescent cells in genetically engineered mice.

The animals would age far more quickly than normal, and when they were given a drug, the senescent cells would die.

The researchers looked at three symptoms of old age: formation of cataracts in the eye; the wasting away of muscle tissue; and the loss of fat deposits under the skin, which keep it smooth.

Researchers said the onset of these symptoms was “dramatically delayed” when the animals were treated with the drug.

When it was given after the mice had been allowed to age, there was an improvement in muscle function.

One of the researchers, Dr James Kirkland, said: “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

His colleague Dr Jan van Deursen told the BBC: “We were very surprised by the very profound effect. I really think this is very significant.”

The treatment had no effect on lifespan, but that may be due to the type of genetically engineered mouse used.

Senescent cells are those which have stopped dividing. While they help prevent tumors from progressing, and often get cleared out by the immune system, they inevitably build up overtime, contributing to the symptoms of aging. Removing these cells doesn’t stop the actual biological process of aging itself – this isn’t the key to immortality – but they do improve the quality of life at old age, and that is arguably just as important.

This study brings us closer to figuring out the other side of the coin when it comes to increasing longevity – living a long life is one thing, but ensuring that life is worth living in the first place is a whole other matter. Suffering from all manner of debilitating effects – senility, muscle weakness, impaired senses – can make the advantages of a longer lifespan on this Earth moot.

Of course, like good scientists, the researchers are cautioning that this shouldn’t be taken as a done deal. The experiment was just a preliminary one, and was done only with mice – we’re not yet able to simply purge these senescent cells from our own bodies.

But it opens up the prospect of doing so, or at least helping the process along. We can try to devise a drug that stops these cells directly for example. One of the scientists involved noted that younger people are already at the point that their immune systems mostly clean these “aging” cells out – so boosting or priming immunity in some way may preempt the effects of growing old, changing forever the way we view aging or how we define “being old” (which is already being shifted through advances in nutrition and medicine).

Very exciting prospects indeed. If anyone else is interested, check out the original published work in Nature.



Ancient Art and Human Nature

We tend to see artistic expression as a relatively modern development. While most people are familiar with cave paintings and prehistoric statuettes (like the famous Venus figurines), we don’t generally imagine sophisticated notions of art emerging until thousands of years later, with the advent of organized civilizations. Even the oldest examples of prehistoric art “only” go back 35,000 years ago, whereas humans have been around since 200,000 years ago – suggesting that we’ve spent most of our existence devoid of the abstract thought and cultural creativity that largely defines humans today.

Therefore, while anatomically we’ve existed since that time, most scientists believe that we didn’t arrive at behavioral modernity – i.e. how we are todayuntil 50,000 years ago. It was at this point that we began to exhibit the development of creativity, symbolic conceptions, ideology, and possibly language. But a recent discovery may shake up this theory, and possibly our whole understanding of human nature.

Both the BBC and the New York Times covered an exciting and recent discovery that suggests a far earlier development of “modern” artistic behavior than previously known. The Blombos Cave in South Africa (pictured above), which has long produced important archaeological finds for decades, yielded a prehistoric workshop containing artistic supplies that dates back to 100,000 years ago – well before previous discoveries of art. As an excerpt from the Times article notes:

Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities “a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.”

The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago. The exuberant flowering among the Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of Europe would come even later; the parade of animals on the walls of Lascaux in France, for example, was executed 17,000 years ago.

Ten years ago, researches discovered bones crafted into tools and fine-tipped stones. A year later, they discovered 70,000 year-old blocks of ochre, which could be used as pigment. Both findings suggested a rudimentary possibility of modern intelligence, but there still wasn’t anything solid enough to suggest these things were actually used for art – until deeper digging revealed a trove of art tools, including red and yellow pigments, containers made out of shells, and the grinding cobbles and bone spatulas used to create paste.

The archaeological team – hailing from Norway, South Africa, France, Australia – believes that the materials were purposefully hoarded, perhaps with the intention of being retrieved at a later time. Based on the absence of evidence of long term settlement, the team also determined that these artisans were probably nomadic and didn’t stick around for long (which may explain the lack of any actual art – so far).

Besides this already remarkable indication of cultural development, the findings suggest many other crucial advancements:

The cave people in South Africa were already learning to find, combine and store substances, skills that reflected advanced technology and social practices as well as the creativity of the self-aware.

The paint makers also appeared to have developed an elementary knowledge of chemistry and some understanding of long-term planning earlier than previously thought.

The article goes on to note that this could push back the origin of language as well, since demonstrating such social practices and creativity may have precipitated the development of advanced communication. Some researchers believe that there might be even older examples of this innovation out there, as the tools seemed to have been relatively well-established among the ancient artists of this cave.

I don’t think you don’t have to be a humanist to appreciate the beauty and marvel of this discovery. Just imagine our “primitive” ancestors first developing these tools and engaging in the prerequisite of invention: debating, sharing ideas, and experimenting in the process. Imagine their first attempts at mixing colors, or the first things they tried to craft or draw. To look at what we have today and think of where we came from is awe-inspiring.

The BBC link above includes a video discussing the findings. Below are some of the picture posted on the Time’s article:


World’s Oldest Fossil Recently Discovered

Or so goes the claim made a few days ago by a group of Australian and British geologists. They may have stumbled upon rudimentary lifeforms – single-celled organisms – that are as much as 3.4 billion years old. This would mean that life emerged relatively quickly following Earth’s formation, which may hold vast implications about the origin of life on this planet. It’s simply amazing to think that we’re still stumbling upon things that have remained hidden for an unfathomable amount of time. It’s seems like every year we uncover some new piece of evidence regarding our vast biological origins.

Of course, there will be many disputes regarding the validity of this finding. As the New York Times article I linked to notes:

Microfossils — the cell-like structures found in ancient rocks — have become a highly contentious field, both because of the pitfalls in proving that they are truly biological and because the scientific glory of having found the oldest known fossil has led to pitched battles between rival claimants…Rocks older than 3.5 billion years have been so thoroughly cooked as to destroy all cellular structures, but chemical traces of life can still be detected.

Indeed, the article notes previous conflicts between scientists who claimed to have discovered what were then the most ancient fossils, only to be challenged by colleagues who believed they were mistakenly identifying inorganic mineral pockets. There will no doubt be similar questions raised, and the authors of the scientific report cautiously admit there is no direct evidence of these things being organic lifeforms, just a good amount of circumstantial evidence strongly leading to that conclusion.

Jerry Coyne, a prominent biologist, made an excellent analysis of this discovery in his own blog, Why Evolution Is True (which I’ve subscribed to). Since my time is short, and my expertise nowhere near as great as his, I’ll leave you to check out the post I’ve hyper-linked above for a detailed explanation.

All I know is that I can’t wait for the day when we may very well have a clearer picture of how life developed and evolved on this planet. It’s remarkable how a few specks of organic material could lead to the beautiful and intricate web of life we have today. Through all these billions of years and millions of extinctions, life has continued to prosper and persevere against unimaginable changes. Who would’ve thought a few basic cells could yield such a beautiful narrative?

Do You Know Your Scientists?

The New York Times published an interesting online quiz that challenges your knowledge about modern day scientific figures. Unfortunately, as it’s introduction, most people have little knowledge of contemporary intellectuals and academics.

In a recent survey asking Americans to name a scientist, 47% responded with “Einstein,” who has been dead since 1955. Next, at 23%, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4% of respondents could name a living scientist.

Needless to say, those aren’t surprising result, but it’s still discouraging. I’ve long lamented the fact that our society seems at best, indifferent to science and at worst hostile to it. Anti-intellectualism runs deep in our culture and history, but the attitude seems particularly profound as of late, given the increasing polarization of our society. This couldn’t be happening at a worse time, as humanity is beset by all sorts of existential problems – resource scarcity, environmental degradation, energy needs, overpopulation – that must be addressed through rationalism, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry.

It’s sad that after all that science has done for us – and all the wondrous benefits we’ve reaped from the works of numerous thinkers, researchers, and inventors – and most of us remain either unaware, apathetic, or even distrustful. It’s easy for most people to name a list of celebrities, athletes, or even internet stars, but a few scientists tend to be out of reach. I know I’m not the first one to note this bizarre and counter-intuitive sense of priority in society, but it doesn’t make me feel any less justified in my displeasure.

Anyway, I managed to pull off an eight out of ten, thankfully – the two I didn’t get were at least narrowed down to 50/50, so I feel a bit better about that.The quiz includes some interesting links into the works and writings of each figure, and I definitely learned quite a bit.  Though I focus a lot on politics and the humanities (definitely my stronger suites), I consider myself a lover of science, particularly in it’s it’s empirical methodology, philosophical commitment to reason and open-mindedness, and it’s constant awe inspiring discoveries.  For all that they’ve given the world, scientists deserve far more respect and recognition than they deserve.

Water on Mars?

It’s an exciting prospect, and not an entirely new one: as amateur astronomers like myself are aware, there’s been talk of a once abundant water supply on mars for some time, starting with NASA’s Mariner 9 space orbiter, which was the first to discover indirect evidence of the presence of water  (circa 1971). There is clear evidence of water being present in frozen – and to a lesser degree, vaporous – states as well. There may have even once been rivers, oceans, and other bodies of water on mars, as this artistic rendering – based on geological data – depicts:

It looks like it'd be a nice place to live, albeit with a lot of adjustments.

However, it’s long been known that whatever the presence or abundance of water in the past, Mars currently cannot support liquid water in any sustainable way. It’s pressure and temperature are far too low, leading to almost immediate freezing. There is still a question as to where all the presumed water from the planet’s past went to, as what remains detectable in the ice caps is far too low to account for it all (many researchers have suggested that there is water, in some form or another, beneath the surface of the planet).

So with all this established, what’s the big deal about this latest finding? Well, it suggests that water does in fact exist in liquid form, at least for some amount of time. Apparently, the Martian summer, previously considered to mild to have any sort of melting effect, has at least in some areas been able to cause seasonal melting. As the article linked before notes:

At a few spots, the meager warmth of martian summer seems able to coax enough liquid water out of the ground to darken the soil in streaks. The marks, which sometimes number in the hundreds, grow downhill hundreds of meters only to fade with the winter cold. And where there is liquid water, as they say, there could be life.

The bold was added on my part, and it emphasizes what I am most excited about. Now, I’m well aware that this is still a very new discovery, and that the possibility of life on Mars, which has long held promise only to disappoint, is still a distant prospect. But I’m still anxiously awaiting any more new information we can find about this fascinating and enigmatic planet. As for most humans throughout history, Mars has always captivated me. Aside from it’s geological and astronomical beauty, I find it’s teases about harboring of life – or at least the potential for ife – irresistible. I’m also a big fan of the idea of terraforming the planet some time in the future, albeit the very distant future – it’s far too costly both financial and technologically, to say nothing of political coordination that would need to be involved.

All of this makes me very excited about the rise of new space powers like China, India, and even Brazil. I really hope the US and other developed nations, grappling with issues about public spending and austerity, somehow manage to rekindle their space exploring ambitions (indeed, this recent discovery was courtesy of the beleaguered NASA). I’m saddened by the the growing perception that outer space exploration is going to fall out of favor, though I hold out hope for the apparent trend of privately-led and funded space exploration efforts (which by the way should consist of more than just the popularly received spacecraft, but telescopes and orbiters as well).

Sure enough, just as I write this, another new discovery being embarked on in advance: NASA just launched the Juno probe in the hopes of gleaning more information on the gas giant Jupiter (the name is rather creative as well, since Juno was Jupiter’s wife in Roman mythology, and was able to see through his veil and uncover his goings-on behind it). It pleases me to see space exploration continue on despite tough times for funding and government spending. I can’t wait for the outcome of this one (which I’ll no doubt be blogging about).

I personally believe that as humankind begins to understand the mechanics and details of this planet, it’ll be coaxed into the vast unknown that beckons. Many may grimly add, as some scientists have, the are current abuse of the planet, if unabated, will anyway require us to look to space for a new home (a popular trope in science fiction for a reason). In any case, the great and big universe that surrounds us, be it near or far, will await us. In the mean time, I will keep dreaming, and can only hope that I’ll live long enough to see space travel become the norm, or Mars become the site of a future human civilization.